Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Black Lagoon

by Jason Thompson,

Episode CXLI: Black Lagoon

"The fuckers in this town really like shooting shit up."
-Black Lagoon

Roanapur, Thailand: a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Rokuro Okajima, a Japanese salaryman in a button-down shirt and tie, is totally out of place there, and he's even more lost when he's captured by the Lagoon Traders, a gang of mercenaries who operate out of a PT boat, dirty jobs done cheap for whoever pays. It's not a random kidnapping; turns out Rokuro's employers have been doing some industrial espionage on the side, and as the only witness, Rokuro is a liability for his former employer. "Now, Okajima…for the good of the 50-thousand-plus workforce of Asahi Heavy Industries…accept your fate with dignity and perish in the South China Sea for us."

In a flash, Rokuro's old life is wiped away. But instead of dying, Rokuro turns to the dark side and teams up with the guys who kidnapped him. His brains, and knowledge of high-end corporate-industrial clients, turns out to be valuable enough to make him a part of the gang…especially when Asahi Heavy Industries doublecrosses them too, and they've all got to work together or sink to the bottom of the Gulf of Thailand. Before "Rock" joins, Lagoon Traders is three people: Dutch, an African-American Vietnam vet, the cool-headed boss and big tough guy. Benny, an electronics and computers expert. And Revy, a tattooed Chinese-American girl with a temper as short as her cut-off jeans. Revy hates Rock at first ("Why don't I just blow his sorry ass away and throw him overboard?"), but they bond in a drink-off in a dive bar, where he impresses her with his salaryman drinking proficiencies. But when a gunfight starts, Revy leaves Rock—and everyone—in the dust. She's a killing machine wielding dual pistols, leaping and diving acrobatically, shooting up anything that moves. She's more than a professional: she's a berserker. Awed by her grace and fury, Rock follows Revy into his new life of dirty money and blood…

I was going to write about Gunsmith Cats this week,but I saw these volumes calling out to me, so I'm writing about Black Lagoon instead. Black Lagoon today hits a lot of the same fan buttons that Gunsmith Cats did in the 1990s: strong female protagonists, crime/heist stories, and tons of guns. Beneath the superficial similarities, though, they're very different. For one, artistically, Sonoda's art is streamlined to the extreme (probably because he worked in anime where every extra line means days of extra work), while Hiroe's is busy and furious. Like Akihiro Ito (one of Hiroe's favorite artists) or Kohta Hirano, Hiroe doesn't draw precise, carefully controlled duels. His fight scenes are explosions of bullets and noise, orgies of violence and scenery-destruction; the realistic weaponry and equipment is an afterthought. The first panel in Black Lagoon is a punch in the face, and it doesn't slow down from there.

I talk about Hirano and Ito, but Black Lagoon doesn't feel particularly influenced by manga. Read any few pages and it's obvious that Hiroe (like Quentin Tarantino, one of his favorite directors) is a HUGE mediaphile who's influenced by everything imaginable and wants to let you know it. The series is full of references to everything from John Woo to The Magnificent Seven to Jean-Paul Sartre. "He sounded like William Holden in The Wild Bunch!" Revy laughs when Rock gets scared and screams. The influence of Call of Duty (one of Hiroe's favorite games) comes across in the fight scenes. Revy likes to sing rock music while she's fighting, mostly Western music like Rob Zombie and John Fogerty, though she does give a shout-out to Guitar Wolf. Impressively, since lyrics are copyrighted, Viz actually paid the $$$ to license the lyrics in the English edition of the manga, instead of changing them like Adam Warren had to do when he wanted to use Faith No More in The Dirty Pair. There's lots of English in this manga, and it's all pretty accurate; Hiroe's English is fact-checked in the Japanese version by tireless anti-censorship advocate Dan Kanemitsu, a personal friend of Hiroe's, who also translated volumes 1-4 of the Viz edition. (Kanemitsu no longer works on Viz's version, but it still reads about the same, probably because it still has the same editor.) Black Lagoon is a truly "global manga," with international influences and an international cast, a rainbow of colors (of course, since all the characters are a bunch of foul-mouthed criminals, it's also a rainbow of racial slurs…). Like Roanapur, a port jointly controlled by the Italian, Russian, Spanish and Chinese mafia, it's got something of everything.

This is an action manga; Hiroe likes to start stories running, by having bad guys start shooting up the place. Although the heroes are on a boat, and there's lots of stories you could tell about modern piracy, most of the stories are land-based, one notably cool exception being the dive to salvage treasure from a sunken Nazi submarine in volume 2. Hiroe loves to write about politics and history as much as he loves to write about old yakuza movies and Stephen King novels. In one story the heroes fight Islamic separatists who've teamed up with an aging Japanese terrorist, a plot certainly inspired by the Japanese Red Army's cooperation with the People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the '70s. Then the team heads to Japan to get involved in a yakuza turf war, a story that could have come out of a Kinji Fukasaku movie; this particular plot is only marred by the fact that it's winter and Revy wears pantyhose and a skirt instead of cut-offs for the entire storyline—blasphemy!!!!  Then later, in a very Sonoda-esque story, the whole town of Roanapur is flipped upside down hunting for Greenback Jane, a master counterfeiter (and cute megane girl, naturally) who every crime syndicate has the hots for. In the cutthroat criminal world of Black Lagoon, alliances are often temporary; the heroes' usual allies include Mr. Chang (a Chinese gangster modeled after Chow Yun-fat) and Balalaika, a statuesque Russian woman with huge burn scars disfiguring her face. Balalaika's Russian mafia is mostly composed of Afghan War vets, still thirsty for battle after all those years ("The desperation and desires of people that were formed and decayed in a closed off world called the Soviet Union…with its collapse, they bared their vicious fangs…Russia's great darkness…") When CIA and NSA agents converge on Roanapur for a black ops mission, Balalaika takes the opportunity to settle old scores against the USSR's old enemy, America. But of course the history of violence stretches even farther in the past than Afghanistan, back to Vietnam, back even farther, a neverending cycle of revenge…

The series gains something because it's set in an imaginary city. Characters compare Roanapur to dying Saigon in 1969, to crime-ridden Johannesburg, South Africa or to the hellhole Mexican town El Rey (also fictional, but maybe it's real in the Black Lagoon universe). In the end of volume 9, in a special section about international editions of Black Lagoon, Hiroe's editor asks him if he's ever gotten any letters from people in Thailand complaining about the depiction of the country; Hiroe laughs and says he wishes he would because it'd be interesting. There's something a little unearthly about Roanapur; even the characters wonder why no police or army ever show up no matter how many shootouts there are, or how people always seem to be going about their business as usual just one street away from the latest bloodbath. I wonder if Hiroe has drawn a map of Roanapur, and if so, I hope he shows us someday. I really started liking it in volume 7, when Hiroe starts fleshing out the place as a city of gun-runners and fixers and mercenaries, a dangerous nest of weird characters.

Weird characters: Black Lagoon has lots of them. In addition to the main ones, there's Leigharch, the cocaine-snorting, continually tripping Irish getaway driver in a Hawaiian shirt, who sadly has only had one appearance. Shenhua, knife-wielding Chinese killer in a cheongsam ("Men…they used to doing the thrusting, not having things thrust into them…") Sawyer the cleaner, an antisocial Goth girl who disposes of bodies for money with a chainsaw, then takes off her medical whites to reveal white makeup and black eyeshadow; there's got to be a fanfic about her meeting that NCIS character. Lotton the Wizard is a bishonen narcissist gunslinger who likes to make dramatic entrances; as a result, he gets shot immediately the first time he shows up (spoiler: he gets better). Eda is a bubblegum-chewing, sunglasses-wearing nun who works at the "Church of Violence", gunrunners operating under the cover of a religious organization. Most of these characters have that magical coolness aura which wards off bullets while faceless minions die in scores around them. If the heroes are this ruthless, imagine how bad the villains are, then make them worse: some of the first major villains in the series are Hansel and Gretel, axe-wielding psycho-killer twins from the slums of post-Communist Romania, "Ceausescu's bastard children". There's nothing like a little twincest to make villains creepier, although that's not nearly their darkest secret.

Hiroe hits the twincest fanservice, but mostly, like Quentin Tarantino, he's a leg man. There's no sex and almost no nudity in Black Lagoon, but Revy's cut-off blue jeans are the second or third most important character. Those jeans seem to be only held together by a few microfibers of denim but, like female superhero uniforms, they somehow survive whatever collateral damage goes on around them. Incidentally, there's whole dojinshi circles devoted to cut-off jeans at Comiket; Dan Kanemitsu wrote about them in his great, out-of-print Comiket fanzine. (Forgive the constant comparisons, but this is another difference from Kenichi Sonoda, whose interests obviously lie in another area.)

I don't know if it was Hiroe's personal interests, or fanservice for the maid fans, that created Roberta the maid, the deadliest of all the many deadly women in Black Lagoon. But Roberta is no mere highly trained killer maid; she's a former FARC terrorist-slash-freedom-fighter, who unexpectedly found satisfaction for her violent revolutionary instincts in becoming the dedicated servant of Diego Lovelace, a wealthy Venezuelan landowner, and Garcia Lovelace, his little boy. (Leftists, enjoy this plausible plot twist!) Now, with her kevlar umbrella and concealed weapons, she's "a killing machine even Rambo would run away from with his ass on fire", as well the heir of the title "Jackal" from famous terrorist Carlos the Jackal. (Writes Hiroe in volume 9: "a character like Roberta who's a Terminator-like maid won't work in a novel, but she will in a comic. She has to be over-the-top because it's a comic.") As the manga goes on, Roberta becomes a more and more central character, and also gets stronger and stronger, till her teeth are like a shark's and she's catching knives in them like Violence Jack.

As Roberta gets stronger, she also takes off her maid uniform and just dresses like a hitman, so maybe it's super-awesome super-violent women, not maids, that's really Hiroe's thing. In an interview in the back of volume 8, Hiroe and game writer Gen Urobochi talk about the role of women in Black Lagoon: basically, Hiroe says he doesn't like weak women, he likes mean, tough, amoral ones who'll beat the sh*t out of you:

Hiroe: "Women are super scary!…When will the bitch-moe era come?…Mr. Urobochi and I are like 'We love women like Thatcher!'" (laughs)
Urobochi: "…Women can still be cool even if they're unfair or uber-evil."
Hiroe: "Yeah, yeah. It gets too raw if men are like that."
Urobochi: "It looks intelligent when women are like that. Not in the sense that they can use dirty tricks because they're inferior, but more like they'll use those tricks without any hesitation. It's more efficient in a way. They're not swayed by some nonsense about aesthetics."
Hiroe: "…Women remain! Men thoughtlessly charge in and die!" (laughs)

It's hard to add much to this, but it reminds me a little of the flipside of something Moto Hagio said about why she used male characters in Heart of Thomas: "Something that would be cool when a boy said it, wasn't cool when a girl said it."

Perhaps this is all just an extreme version of tsundere, the lame kind where the fanservice comes from previously strong women turning mushy and wimpy. To Black Lagoon's credit, though, Revy shows very little mush, even though she is obviously affected by her gradually developing relationship—friendship?—with Rock. Revy's past has left her vicious and defensive, possibly sociopathic. She kills people unnecessarily; even Dutch yells at her "Gunmen shoot people for a living, yeah. But killing people for kicks is what a trigger-happy psycho does!" Rock argues with Revy and tries to steer her towards a different path, which just makes her angrier. ("Get off your fucking high horse, asshole! How's a suit like you gonna know anything about me?") But Revy has changed Rock too. ("When you made that first offer to me, something inside me snapped. Packed like sardines on the morning train, smiling and bowing all the time, killing myself so the company can make a buck…but after meeting you, none of that mattered anymore. You pulled me out of that rat race.") This manga has many arguments about morality, of which the best is probably the confrontation between some US Special Forces troops and one of their victims in volume 8.

At firs Rock and Revy fight continually but by the end of volume 2 or so, there's clearly something different about their relationship. It's almost romantic, but…remember, there's no sex and almost no nudity in Black Lagoon. Still, Rock sure is casual when Revy's taking a shower in the next room, or when they're sharing cigarettes, or sitting and talking on her bed. I know that perpetual romantic/sexual tension is a must-have between the hero and heroine in a manga…and this is just a guess, but…is it just maybe, possibly conceivable that Rock and Revy have hooked up offscreen? Rock will never have Revy's fighting skills, but they are partners. "You said you were a gun," he tells her. "If you're a gun…I'm the bullet."

Black Lagoon isn't perfect. There's lots of fast action, but the series isn't a fast read; sometimes it's so visually busy it's hard to tell what's going on. The heroes' abilities drift into the superhuman, which is fine, but the shonen manga data nerd in me wants more explanations of it (no matter how ridiculous the explanations are), like the upper limit of human reflexes, or whether you can really shoot guns out of people's hands. (Mythbusters says no, at least not without injuring the person, but what's a little bullet shrapnel to a true badass?) Another, bigger nitpick was that Black Lagoon went on hiatus just as it was really getting good, with Hiroe taking a three-year break for personal reasons (overwork?) after volume 9. The upside is that the Viz edition has completely caught up to the Japanese in the meantime, and Black Lagoon finally resumed running in Shonen Sunday GX at the beginning of this year. Hopefully he'll keep it going and give us more: more about Revy's past, more about Remy and Revy, more about Roanapur, more villains, more plot, more everything. I can't wait to read it. We've been waiting three years, Hiroe. Show us what you got.

Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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